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Next-Gen Audio Battle: DVD-Audio vs. SACD

2 May, 2003 By: Thomas K. Arnold

The quest for a successor to the CD, now in its third decade on the market, is being bogged down by those who say, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

Sales of the much-ballyhooed DVD-Audio haven't come close to the lofty goals set by supporters when the format first bowed in the late 1990s, and now there's a second contender, the Super Audio CD (SACD), that's rapidly gaining ground in a race some observers feel shouldn't even be run in the first place.

The initial specs for DVD-Audio were drawn up in early 1999 under the auspices of the DVD Forum, the same confederation of companies -- including heavy hitter Toshiba -- behind the DVD-Video launch two years earlier. A single-sided DVD-5 holds 4.7 gigabytes of data and can accommodate nearly nine hours of music, seven times as much as a CD, with 700 megabytes of data. But instead of merely adding more songs, DVD-Audio employs its greater capacity to increase the sampling rate and thus produce better, clearer sound.

The Sony-Phillips alliance, meanwhile, has developed its own specs, also using DVD technology, for what it calls the Super Audio CD. The SACD has even greater peak frequency than the DVD-Audio, perhaps because all its capacity is devoted to sound rather than pictures and text, common add-ons to DVD-Audio. The SACD's peak frequency is 100 KHz, compared with DVD-Audio's 48 KHz and the standard CD's 22.05 KHz.

According to the www.techtv.com Web site, both formats are struggling to catch on with consumers. Each has about 300 titles available, with few overlaps -- Sony artists are firmly entrenched in the SACD camp, while the Warner Bros. stable is aligned with DVD-Audio. DVD-Audio players are manufactured by Kenwood, Panasonic, Pioneer and Toshiba; SACD players are manufactured by Denon, Marantz, Philips, Pioneer and Sony.

It's not clear which format will ultimately win the race to succeed the CD, but DVD-Audio has an edge, some analysts say.

It benefits from its ability to include visuals as well as the fact that it can accommodate the same audio encoded as Dolby Digital for use on existing DVD-Video players.

Each format can exist in three different versions: single-layer, dual-layer or hybrid. A hybrid SACD includes a CD layer and an SACD layer, which means it can also play -- without enhanced sound quality -- on a standard CD player. A hybrid DVD-Audio disc also plays CD-quality sound on a standard DVD player by including a CD layer and a layer with DVD-Audio and video data.

The SACD format is further boosted by the enthusiastic support of music industry icon Russ Solomon, founder of the Tower Records and Video chain, who champions it as being a true audiophile format due to its ultra-high capacity.

But most observers agree that until a uniform standard is agreed upon, there is little chance that either format will gain mainstream acceptance. As Graham Sharpless of British disc maker Disctronics wrote in his March 2003 report “New Formats for Music: DVD & SACD”: “The CD is still the format of choice for most people. It is compact; the quality is high enough for most; and it is most suitable for use in cars and on the move.”

Stay tuned to this section for continuing coverage of the debate between DVD-Audio and SACD.

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